Hey, musical sports fans! Have you ever thought how great it would be to revel in the majestic feats of the Winter Olympics without the constant babbling of the commentators (Scott Hamilton notwithstanding, of course)? Well, here at Lincoln Center, we feel the same way. That’s why we’ve handpicked the perfect classical soundtrack to go with the virtuosic athleticism of each weird and wild Olympic event. So, cue up this playlist, grab a hot drink, and go for experiential gold.
Alpine Skiing and Snowboarding: Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein
Nothing embodies the racer’s spirit like the eternally youthful exuberance of Leonard Bernstein, which is completely unbottled in this performance of his overture to Candide by the New York Philharmonic conducted by the composer.
Biathlon: Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler
Endless gliding melodies, immersive landscapes, startling brass fanfares—nothing says “skiing + shooting” like Mahler’s emotionally volatile Fifth Symphony. And like biathletes, conductors of Mahler’s five-movement marathon can easily miss their mark. No need to worry with this recording from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra led by Manfred Honeck.
Bobsleigh: String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 41, No. 2: IV. Allegro molto vivace by Robert Schumann
Ensemble is everything in bobsleigh like in chamber music. Listen as the Takács Quartet shows us how four can become one to delightful, breathtaking effect in their recording of the final movement of Schumann’s Second String Quartet.
Curling: Partita for 8 Singers: No. 1 Allemande by Caroline Shaw
Like Caroline Shaw’s ecstatic, Pulitzer Prize–winning vocal piece and Sol LeWitt’s abstract wall drawings that inspired it, we’re not quite sure what is happening in curling but we know deep down in our souls that we love it.
Figure Skating: Transcendental Etude No. 4 “Mazeppa” by Franz Liszt
Make it graceful, light as air. Don’t forget to smile! Also, you’re going to need to land multiple quads and if you falter that ice is hard and there is nowhere to hide. That’s why we’re going with Daniil Trifonov, the Nathan Chen of the piano, on this one.
Freestyle Skiing/Snowboarding: “Dance of the Floreadores” by Duke Ellington
Based on a ballet classic (“Waltz of the Flowers” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker) with the added joy of improvisation, this chestnut was written by the jazz legend who once said: "Art is dangerous." But not as dangerous as big-air snowboarding...
Ice Dancing: Jazz Suite No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich
With the Jazz Suite's famous waltz, comic polka, and slinky foxtrot, Shostakovich captured the spirit of a 1950s American dancehall like only a satirical Soviet composer could. But watch out—the judges may not be on your side no matter how well you think you’ve played the game.
Ice Hockey: The Creatures of Prometheus by Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s only full-length ballet is about a mythical hero trying to refine ignorant and crass humans through art, knowledge, and law. So really, the dramatic choreography of ice hockey is as good as any and this rendition by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra led by Thomas Dausgaard is a true song of ice and fire.
Luge: In C by Terry Riley
Both are feats of concentration unlike anything else, yet to the layperson they seem simple. After all, luge is just fast sledding and Terry Riley’s landmark piece is just a bunch of repeating phrases in the key of C. Right? At least that’s what champions like Olympic athletes and the Bang On A Can All-Stars can make you think with their effortless virtuosity.
Nordic Combined: The Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach
Requiring stamina, speed, and lift, the Nordic combined is a stunning example of athletic counterpoint, so there is only one way to go on this: Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations.
Nordic Skiing: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 by Jean Sibelius
You can practically smell the fir trees and breathe the fresh arctic air into your city-blackened lungs with this recording of Sibelius’s evocative Second Symphony by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons.
Short-Track Speed Skating: Caprice No. 5 in A minor: Agitato by Niccolò Paganini
Impossibly fast, physically punishing, and right on the edge of being out of control, Canadian violinist James Ehnes definitely wins a spot on the podium with this fierce performance.
Ski Jumping: Mass in C Minor, K.427: Kyrie by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Time it just right and those anti-gravitational wonders will take off just as the choir begins its fateful ascent to the heavens. Like so many big choral works, it’s easy for it to get bogged down by sentimentality, but this recording by period-instrument ensemble Gabrieli moves along at a nice clip and Mozart’s music is nearly weightless.
Skeleton: O vis eternitatis by Hildegard von Bingen (arr. G. Pedersen)
For what is a sport that has you hurdling head-first down an ice slide at 80 mph if not a solitary encounter with your own mortality? Grete Pedersen, the visionary conductor of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, and medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen co-lead this terrifying interior journey.
Speed Skating: “Infernal Dance” from The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky
Adrenaline and intensity give way to moments of pure grace where flight seems possible. And with this genius reading by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra you can hear the lead being traded among the skaters.
Listen to the full playlist.
Amanda MacBlane is Senior Writer/Editor at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Eileen Willis is the Editorial Director of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.